House of Commons
Monday 26 March 2012
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
United Arab Emirates
I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the two British service personnel who were killed today in Afghanistan. Their next of kin are being informed. Our thoughts, as ever, are with their families, for whom this will be a deeply personal tragedy. Details of the incident are still emerging, but it appears that a member of the Afghan national army opened fire at the entrance gate of the British headquarters in Lashkar Gah city, killing the two British service personnel. The assailant was killed by return fire. The Ministry of Defence will issue further statements as the details of the incident become clearer. I am sure that the House will also wish to join me in paying tribute to Captain Rupert Bowers from 2nd Battalion the Mercian Regiment, who was killed in Afghanistan on 21 March.
The United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates enjoy a strong relationship, as is enshrined in the defence co-operation accord signed in 1996, which sets a wide scope for security co-operation, including in planning. I visited the UAE two weeks ago for meetings with UAE Ministers and defence chiefs. We discussed ways to further enhance our co-operation, including through equipment sales and associated industrial collaboration and technology transfer. I look forward to maintaining a productive dialogue as we take those proposals forward with the UAE over the coming months.
May I associate myself with my right hon. Friend’s tribute to the brave service personnel who lost their lives today and previously?
The UAE is a key strategic ally and has been for a very long time. Given the tensions in the region, notably with Iran, what is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that our Eurofighters and other key arms are provided to the UAE so that it is defended properly?
As I said, I visited the UAE two weeks ago. It has indicated that it requires fighters. However, it rightly looks to set its requirements for military equipment in the context of a wider collaboration with its friends and allies. The UK is looking to put together an attractive package of industrial, technological and defence support with the UAE. We hope that the Typhoon will be part of that.
May I associate myself with the comments of the Secretary of State about the recent deaths of the three brave soldiers? They do what they do not only to keep our country safe, but to defend those who cannot defend themselves in Afghanistan.
Our relationship with the United Arab Emirates is incredibly important, as the Secretary of State said. After the importance of the Typhoon jet in Libya, will he ensure that the UAE understands that it is a superior aircraft to the Rafale, the French model? Will he do everything that he can to support the Typhoon in the fighter modernisation programme of the UAE?
I assure my hon. Friend that it is clear from the discussions that I have had in the UAE that the UAE air force chiefs are well aware of the capabilities of the Typhoon. I am sure that they are also well aware of the capabilities of the Rafale. We have had Typhoons in the UAE twice over the past few months. There will be further work with the UAE so that it can understand the capabilities of the Typhoon in detail as part of their evaluation of the options open to them.
The Secretary of State spoke for the whole House in extending condolences to the families of those who fell in the service of their country in Afghanistan. We are grateful to him.
Should we be increasing our arms sales to any part of the Arab world, when people are crying out for democracy and we are critical of arms sales to Syria? It is shaming that as Bahrainis are tortured, killed and repressed, we have resumed arms sales to that country. Should we not try exporting a bit more democracy and a bit less weaponry?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point. The United Kingdom’s intention is always to get that balance right. The UAE is a strong and reliable ally and partner. It fought alongside us in Libya and is working alongside us in Afghanistan. In an increasingly fragile security situation in the Gulf, it is a significant ally of the United Kingdom. We always seek to balance the concerns that he has set out against the United Kingdom’s security concerns when making such judgments.
Service Families (Welfare)
All the services have long-standing welfare structures in place to support families. We continually review that support to identify where it can be further improved, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a number of measures last Wednesday to support service families. They included £3 million made available to double, again, to 100% the council tax rebate for deployed service personnel; £2 million allocated to double the rate of the families welfare grant, which is available to commanding officers to use as they see fit on activities for the families of those deployed; and an additional investment of £100 million in 2013-14 to improve service accommodation.
My hon. Friend raises a very good point, and I should say that in general, service children have a rather better than average attainment record in schools. We have several schemes, one of which is the continuity of education allowance, which allows children to remain in one school while their parents move around the world or the country. Another is the pupil premium that we have introduced, run by the Department for Education, under which each child carries a passport of money for their school. Schools very much welcome that.
I join the Secretary of State in expressing sincere sympathy at the tragic deaths of the soldiers in Afghanistan.
Can the Minister confirm that homes at military bases in Northern Ireland such as Aldergrove will be upgraded to improve living conditions for all our military families?
The hon. Gentleman raises a very important issue. It is rather like painting the Forth road bridge—or is it the rail bridge? I can never remember. [Interruption.] The rail bridge—I am grateful. It is ongoing—[Hon. Members: “Not any more.”] Apparently, they have found a new paint in Scotland. Nevertheless, we will continue to work on all Army quarters. The last Government took great steps to improve service family accommodation, and we are continuing that work.
Following on from the support that is given to serving personnel, what support is given to veterans and their families through extra funding for centres such as the Wirral veterans contact centre, which was set up in 2011 specifically for that purpose?
If my hon. Friend would like to speak to me about that centre, I would be very happy to look into it. I have to say that I have not heard of it before. We work very closely with all the service charities in the voluntary sector to support ex-service personnel, and we also do a great deal of work through the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency and other organisations to support ex-service personnel.
I welcome the announcements in the Budget targeted at forces families’ welfare, but I hope the Minister occasionally reads the Army Families Federation website and blog. If so, he will see how the announcement on housing is being received. One blog post reads that
“it’s difficult to regard as new money and is still £40 million short of that allocated and withdrawn last year…it does not begin to answer the problems surrounding the rebasing of families from Germany.”
Is he embarrassed that the Chancellor’s announcement does not even make up for last year’s cut?
I really do think, first, that Opposition Members should remember that we are struggling in a very difficult financial situation caused by the last Government. Secondly, the hon. Lady should not believe every word that appears on every blog on the internet, because there are rather a lot of them. Thirdly, I was most interested to discover that the shadow team led by the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) had been issuing joint press statements with service charities, which I have to say I find very surprising. I am rather disappointed if the Royal British Legion is sending out joint press statements with the shadow Defence team, as was said in a very reputable newspaper, The Mail on Sunday, yesterday.
Defence Equipment (UK-France Co-operation)
We have taken significant steps to implement the UK-France defence security co-operation treaty signed in 2010. The recent summit, in February, demonstrated that our bilateral co-operation remains strong and that both nations are committed to delivering the aims of the treaty. The summit declaration set out the areas of co-operation on defence equipment, and we continue to make progress across all the programmes by ensuring that our time lines and requirements are aligned, and in some cases by setting up joint project offices.
Yes, I can give my hon. Friend a clear reassurance on those points. The politicians, armed services and acquisition communities of both countries understand the importance of the relationship, which I believe will endure for many years because of the benefits it brings in terms of both enhanced capability and lower cost, which are crucial tests for anyone interested in delivering effective equipment for armed forces at a price the taxpayer can afford.
May I associate myself entirely with the Secretary of State’s expression of sympathy following the loss of two service personnel today in Afghanistan?
The Opposition support further co-operation with the French, as industry does. However, the industry’s concern is that the French Government have an industrial strategy and are already looking at how they maximise business for French companies. They have been faster out of the blocks yet again, so given repeated delays in the announcement on planning round 12, can the Minister tell the House exactly when we can expect the announcement? Can he please not say “shortly”, because industry and employees deserve a little better?
I assure the hon. Lady that she can expect a statement very shortly. As for her more general point, this country has a very effective way of supporting defence industries by making them competitive to ensure that they can take on world markets well and strongly, by supporting small and medium-sized enterprises and exports, and by supporting science, which the previous Labour Government cut. Those things will give us a very strongly competitive defence industry, not only in respect of the relationship with France, but around the world.
Typhoon exports are an important part of our defence export drive. They help to sustain highly skilled jobs and engineering capability in the air sector as well as enhancing our alliances in key regions of the world. We also recognise the benefit Typhoon sales could have on the Ministry of Defence’s own acquisition programme. Ministers and officials from across Government are actively promoting Typhoon where appropriate, highlighting the excellent performance and reliability on operations and the outstanding value for money it offers, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has just confirmed.
May I associate my views with those of other hon. Members regarding the loss of life in Afghanistan?
Last week, the Indian Ministry of Defence ordered an internal review into the procurement process that led to the French Rafale aircraft receiving preferred bidder status despite the fact that it was apparently out-performed by the Eurofighter in tests as well as in operations in Libya? What discussions has the Minister held with his Indian counterparts to seek reassurances that Britain’s defence export industry is not losing out because of unfair and uncompetitive practices?
The hon. Gentleman takes a close interest in these matters and took part in the Westminster Hall debate introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) on 7 March, so I understand where he is coming from. I can assure him that I take these matters very seriously. I have read the reports about the internal investigation that Minister Antony, the Defence Minister in India, has instigated. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I shall be flying to India tomorrow, where I hope to have discussions with Indian Ministers and other officials.
The Typhoon is clearly an exceptional aircraft, but to sell it to countries around the world we need to draw on all the experience we have as a nation and our contacts with other countries. Given that our contact with India goes back many decades, why were the Germans chosen to lead the sales consortium? Should not we have been leading that, in what used to be a part of the British empire?
I understand where my hon. Friend is coming from, but unfortunately the previous Government decided that the project would be led by the Germans, despite all the connections the UK has with India. I can assure him that we and BAE Systems are taking a very active part not only in preparing ourselves in case the Indians would like us to resubmit and talk to us again, but in discussions with EADS, Cassidian, the German Government and our other two partners. We are also working very hard on the export drive to make up for the loss and damage done by Labour when it was in government.
My aim is to announce a balanced budget for defence and a properly funded equipment programme for the first time in a generation, and to deal with the £38 billion black hole we inherited from our predecessors.
As part of that process, we are reviewing all programmes and I will announce the outcome of this work when it is complete, but as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said last week, we will be guided by the facts and be realistic about costs and risks. If the facts change, we will, if necessary, change our plans and not plough on regardless, as the previous Government did.
Does the Secretary of State not agree that it is essential that we continue with the carrier programme to ensure that our troops in conflict far from our shores can at least have air supremacy and to bring much-needed jobs to our shipyards around Britain, including on the Clyde, where many of my constituents work?
The hon. Gentleman will know that the strategic defence and security review committed us to a regeneration of carrier strike capability, and the building of the carriers is well advanced. I can reassure him on that front. There is no intention to revisit the decision to build the carriers. The review is about how we operate them, use them and ensure that they remain affordable into the future.
My right hon. Friend is rumoured to be considering reverting to the short take-off and vertical landing variant of the joint strike fighter. Is he aware that were he to do so, his decision would be applauded by many because it would mean not having to find £2 billion per carrier—money not readily available—and because it might mean having two carriers instead of one?
The Government have just placed great emphasis on co-operation between the UK and our French NATO partners. Does the Secretary of State believe that this is helped by the reports that they are chopping and changing their plans about which aircraft will go on the new carriers?
The collaboration that we have discussed and intend to progress with the French essentially concerns carrier deployment—working together to ensure deployments that make sense and which are coherent when looked at together. It is not about interoperability of aircraft as such. We expect that whatever decision we come to, the co-operation and collaboration that we have been discussing with the French will go ahead and will be an important part of our posture in operating our carrier strike force.
On 19 December, I asked in Defence questions about the state of the carrier fleet and the aircraft to fly from it. Rather to my surprise, I got the old ministerial brush-off. If I say I have heard echoes of that so far today in the Secretary of State’s answers, perhaps I will not be criticised. It has been known for months that the F-35 programme, so far as it relates to the aircraft the United Kingdom was to procure, has been in trouble. When will the Government come to the House of Commons and make a full, clear and detailed statement about the carriers and the aircraft to fly from them? Does anyone in the Ministry of Defence now admit to regretting the fact that we disposed of the present generation of carriers and sold off the Harrier aircraft to the United States marine corps?
My right hon. and learned Friend is conflating two issues. I have already said that we are looking at the carrier programme along with the rest of the equipment programme, and as soon as I am in a position to do so, which I expect to be shortly, I will come and update the House fully. The disposal of the Harriers was a separate decision taken because of the cost pressures facing the Government and taken consciously to save the Tornado, which proved to be an invaluable aircraft in the Libya campaign. It was the right decision.
May I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s words about the tragic loss of life of two serving personnel and, obviously, Captain Rupert Bowers, last week?
In responding to the initial question, the Secretary of State referred to the Prime Minister’s words last week. I remind him that in introducing the SDSR, the Prime Minister said that the short take-off and vertical landing variant of the F-35 was an error. He has obviously seen fit to change his mind. Does the Secretary of State agree with that position, and will he confirm that the Government will deliver continuous carrier strike capability by 2020, as outlined and pledged in the SDSR?
I can only say what I have already said. We are looking at all the issues around the carrier strike programme, and I will make a statement to the House shortly. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman, however, that I will not take any lectures on the carrier programme from him. He supported a Government who delayed the programme by two years and drove £1.6 billion of costs into it, and whose management of the programme was described by the Public Accounts Committee as
“a new benchmark in poor corporate decision making.”
Can the Secretary of State confirm that if he decided to go for the short take-off and vertical landing variant of the F-35, this would enable continuous carrier strike capability to be maintained, as it could be deployed from both carriers, which is impossible to do with a single carrier?
My hon. Friend is pointing out that there are complex capability traits to be looked at in considering the question of carrier strike—the capabilities of the two aircraft, but also the availability of carriers from which they can fly. All those things are being evaluated. When we have come to a clear conclusion, we will come back to the House.
The Ministry of Defence is continuing to target efforts on the most pressing accommodation issues. For example, both this year and next, the MOD plans to spend around £75 million on upgrading single accommodation. Furthermore, some £44 million was allocated in financial year 2011-12, and £50.5 million in 2012-13, to upgrade service families’ accommodation to the top standard. In addition, the Government have just announced £100 million of further investment in financial year 2013-14. Around 650 service homes and 600 single accommodation units are expected to benefit from this substantial investment.
This is taken on a case-by-case basis. Accommodation will be adapted as necessary where a clear user is coming in and using a unit of accommodation. However, rather than trying to pre-empt or guess what will be required, we will continue to take an entirely pragmatic approach.
The Minister will be aware that the Defence Committee recently visited the Falkland Islands. As part of an excellent programme, we looked at the accommodation provided to servicemen while they are in the Falklands. However, we came across personnel from the 5th Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland who were being accommodated in camp beds in an old gym, having just returned from an exercise. Does he find that acceptable, and will he look into it to ensure that it does not happen again?
The accommodation to which the hon. Lady refers was an entirely temporary arrangement while the units of accommodation that those personnel would ordinarily have been living in were being refurbished—I think this was made clear to the Select Committee on its visit. Those personnel will be in that permanent accommodation as soon as it is ready.
As the Minister correctly says, this Government have done a great deal since they came to power. However, does he agree that the provision of decent accommodation, for both single servicemen and married couples—and, indeed, for families—is central to the military covenant? Does he agree that there is so much more to be done, and that even the announcements that he has made are not yet all that could be done? When does he anticipate having an entire military estate that is fit for purpose?
As I explained in my initial answer, we continue to make substantial investments, which were further boosted by the additional funds that were made available last week in the Budget. It is important to keep a sense of proportion about the condition of housing at the moment. More than 96% of family accommodation in the UK is in either condition 1 or 2, and we are now meeting the commitment in the armed forces covenant that no family accommodation will be newly allocated if it falls in condition 3 or 4. There is more to be done in the case of single living accommodation, but that work continues apace. Even as we speak, the Allenby Connaught project is continuing to deliver new units of single living accommodation across Salisbury plain and in Aldershot.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the likely cost of upgrading the service accommodation in the Edinburgh estate, including at Craigiehall in my constituency, is likely to be significantly less than the £600 million cost of the proposed super-barracks in Kirknewton?
I can assure my hon. Friend that the costs of differing future accommodation options for the Army are being scrutinised closely. The Army 2020 piece of work is nearing a conclusion. The attendant estate study will continue for a few months, but the sort of comparisons that he makes will be central to the thinking in those studies.
May I press the Minister on his answer on single accommodation? When does he expect single accommodation—I mean single accommodation specifically—to be up to a standard that he would expect all service personnel to live in?
The aim would be to complete that as part of Future Force 2020, but we cannot know for certain until the work that I described a moment ago is completed. Until we know the future basing requirement of the Army, it will be very hard to say. For example, if a great deal of new build for new barracks were involved, this goal would be likely to be achieved much earlier than if it were a question of “make do and mend”. Some pretty big strategic decisions need to be taken on the defence estate during the next six months.
I welcome the priority given by the Government to this issue when they are under intense financial pressures. May I suggest that the very different accommodation patterns across the services are one of several good reasons why the future new employment model should be devolved to the three services rather than developed centrally?
Demands for greater political, social and economic participation continue in the middle east and north Africa, particularly in Syria where the situation is of grave concern. The UK remains concerned over Iran’s nuclear programme and its continued attempts to develop nuclear weapons. The UK continues to work with other countries to achieve a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. We want a negotiated solution, not a military one, but we are clear that all options should be kept on the table. We assess that the regional security situation will remain fragile.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s appraisal of the Iranian nuclear programme; no options should be left off the table. Will he ensure that the Iranians are under no illusions and state that, if necessary, the United Kingdom has the capability to act—and act decisively?
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has already made the situation abundantly clear. The UK, together with the United States, seeks a peaceful solution to the Iranian crisis, but we are very clear that a combination of engagement and continued pressure is the way to deliver that. We look forward to the resumed E3 plus 3 talks, and we are also very clear that no option should be taken off the table.
Given the recent deployment of some of Britain’s minesweepers to the strait of Hormuz, does the Secretary of State agree that the clearing of mines in international waterways is a necessary but passive action, which should not be seen as a hostile act by Iran or any other country?
To be clear, there has not been a recent deployment. The UK has minesweepers deployed in the Gulf—they have been there for some time, and I expect them to remain there. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Keeping the strait of Hormuz open is a passive action in the interests of the international community, and should not be regarded as a war-like action by anybody.
Armed Forces Morale
I continue to be impressed by the morale and commitment of those putting their lives at risk on operations on a daily basis. This was particularly evident to me during my recent visit to Afghanistan. More broadly, the Ministry of Defence uses a number of measures, including the annual armed forces continuous attitude survey, to monitor and understand changes in morale across the services. In the 2011 survey across the three services, 46% of respondents reported that their morale was high, and 31% were neutral.
May I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s earlier comments, and in particular convey my deepest sympathies to the family of Captain Rupert Bowers of the 2nd Battalion the Mercian Regiment, who was killed in Afghanistan last week? The people of Bromsgrove are rightly very proud of having given the Mercians the freedom of the district last year. Does the Minister agree that if more cities and towns throughout the country followed their example by conferring a similar honour, that could help to boost morale?
I do agree, and I applaud the local communities that are taking part in the armed forces community covenant scheme. Over the past five or six years, the community in general has increasingly recognised the contribution that our armed forces make, and has become increasingly willing to make spontaneous gestures of respect for them. That is very welcome, and it undoubtedly has an impact on morale.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential to the morale of our troops on operations that they know that in their absence their families are safe, secure, and surrounded by understanding and like-minded communities such as those in the neighbourhoods of married quarters, which are known as “patches”? Can he reassure service families that the forthcoming review of accommodation options under the new employment model will take account of the intangible benefits of such communities in towns where there are married quarters?
I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. There is a balance to be struck, but the community support that results from the collocation of armed forces families is tangible. We must also concentrate on the ability of families to secure employment in local communities, and that is another consideration that we take into account.
I thank the Minister for his thoughtful response. Forces’ morale is closely linked with events in Afghanistan, and I join the Secretary of State in offering condolences: the thoughts of all of us, and the prayers of many of us, are with the families and friends of those who have been bereaved today. I do not want to go into the specifics of that attack, but attacks on NATO forces by Afghan forces have resulted in 75 fatalities since 2007, and most of the attacks have taken place in the last two years. In the light of previous incidents, what new procedures have been implemented to vet Afghan recruits, and will Afghan forces be responsible for the protection of UK trainers who remain in Afghanistan post-2014?
We keep force protection issues under continuous review, and we have changed our procedures in the light of events that have occurred both recently and over a longer period. The decision of the Government —the last Government, as it happens, but that is not relevant—to adopt a partnering strategy and put our troops in alongside those of Afghanistan undoubtedly carried a considerable degree of risk, and there are those who think that that is the wrong approach, but I do not agree. I believe that the last Government were right to compute that the risk was worth taking, and I believe that that is the only way in which we will engrain the necessary skills and culture in the Afghan forces and complete our mentoring task.
Forces’ morale often depends on success in Afghanistan. Last week the Prime Minister made clear his view that the handover to Afghan forces could be achieved satisfactorily without a political settlement, but that is contrary to all experience in Afghanistan. Such a vacuum would encourage neighbouring countries to seek influence, allow the Taliban to return, and allow other elements to exploit the ungoverned space. Does the Minister accept that while there can of course be significant military success in Afghanistan, stability in the country will ultimately rely on a political settlement?
I certainly agree that a political settlement will be required if there is to be enduring stability beyond the end of 2014, but I think that the hon. Gentleman conflates two issues. It is perfectly possible for us to complete the security challenge of handing the lead over to the Afghans district by district, area by area, which we are doing now, and doing successfully; but if that is to stand a chance of sustaining peace in Afghanistan in the long term, a political settlement will need to come behind it to return the country to the stability for which we have all been trying to work.
I regularly discuss a wide range of security issues with my NATO counterparts. The UK continues to work with other countries to achieve a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. We want a negotiated solution, not a military one, but we are clear that all options should be kept on the table.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Most of the people I speak to on this subject are very concerned about any prospect of military action against Iran. Can the Secretary of State reassure them that everything that can be done through diplomatic means is being done, and what steps is he taking with his US counterparts to move that forward?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that everything possible is being done. The UK has been in the forefront of the effort progressively to tighten sanctions against Iran. All the evidence suggests that they are beginning to have an impact on the Iranian economy and the Iranian regime. We are also leading supporters of the E3 plus 3 talks, and we are moderately encouraged by Iran’s commitment to resume talking next month, but, of course, the proof will be in the pudding, as we have heard all this before. We hope this is a genuine re-engagement by Iran, but, as I said earlier, we should leave all options on the table.
In the absence of the appropriate UN Security Council authorisation and the justification of self-defence, does the Secretary of State agree that any attack on Iran, whether by Israel or not, would be an act of aggression and in breach of international law?
Armed Forces Act 2011
The Armed Forces Act 2011 received Royal Assent on 3 November 2011. Some of its provisions, including the continuation of the Armed Forces Act 2006, came into force on that day. The provision relating to the call-out of reserve forces came into force two months later. Implementation of the remainder of the Act is now under way. The first commencement order was made on 1 March, which brings into force, with effect on either 8 March or 2 April, about half of the remaining provisions of the Act, including the provisions relating to the armed forces covenant report, Ministry of Defence police performance regulations and the independence of service police investigations.
I thank the Minister for that answer, and may I associate myself with the condolences expressed earlier? Does the Minister agree that means-testing the compensation paid to the bereaved families of those who have fallen on the front line is not right and should be looked at again?
The hon. Lady raises an important issue. This practice causes a great deal of unhappiness among some people, and I accept her point that it should be kept under review. The means-testing of compensation awards is not a Ministry of Defence responsibility, but if she likes I will get my colleagues in the relevant Department to write to her.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Government on their work on the military covenant. Will he take this opportunity to thank organisations such as the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association for the work they do for those serving on the front line and their loved ones?
I certainly will. As my hon. Friend knows, both we and the country as a whole rely a great deal on the service charities and voluntary sector, as have previous Governments. My hon. Friend mentions the SSAFA, but many other organisations, including the Army Benevolent Fund—or ABF, as it is now called—Help for Heroes and the Royal British Legion do excellent work on behalf of our service personnel and ex-service personnel. There are, I think, almost 2,000 such service charities, so I will not name them all.
Armed Forces Community Covenant Scheme
It is too early to assess the efficacy of the scheme, which was launched less than a year ago, but the level of interest from communities across the UK is very promising. More than 40 councils have already signed a covenant, and more than £2 million has already been allocated to support local projects under the grant scheme.
I thank the Minister for that answer. I am particularly interested in soldiers’ mental health. What is the MOD doing to increase public understanding and awareness of potential mental health issues among armed forces personnel, especially in preparation for the troop draw-down from Afghanistan?
We take the issue of mental health extremely seriously, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will know. I particularly pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) for his “Fighting Fit” report. We have implemented a great many of his recommendations and I believe we will implement them all, including working closely with Combat Stress, which we continue to do. Combat Stress has installed a helpline for those in trouble. We continue to take this matter seriously. It is not really part of the armed forces community covenant, but we see it as part of wider covenant issues.
On celebrating links between communities and the armed forces, will the Minister note the extremely strong support shown by the town of Warminster on 16 March as 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment, which is deploying in extremely difficult circumstances to Afghanistan, marched through the town?
I will. We all know of the tragedies in Afghanistan, and there cannot be anyone in the House who has not shed a tear for the brave young men who die in the service of their country. I pay tribute to the people of Warminster and, indeed, to their Member of Parliament.
Military Personnel (Training)
I would like to offer my condolences to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents for the recent losses to the 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment and 1st Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment. The Ministry of Defence takes very seriously its responsibility and duty to care for all our service personnel to make sure they are sufficiently prepared for the job they are deployed to undertake. Training is designed to meet the specific requirements of each operation, and individuals will be provided with appropriate training, depending on the role they are going to perform.
May I remind the ministerial team that it is young men and women who are killed and have been killed on active service? Captain Lisa Head, from the bomb disposal squad, was killed a year ago in Afghanistan, and the inquest into her death takes place tomorrow. The young Yorkshire men who were killed recently were 19, 20, 20 and 21, which makes one wonder whether these young people are sufficiently skilled, trained and experienced to be in such a dangerous position so early in life.
I entirely repudiate what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Army units deploying to Afghanistan go through a bespoke 18-month training progression prior to deployment, which is tailored to the role they will fulfil in theatre and creates a very high level of individual and collective competence. From talking to them out there, I know they will believe that they have had the training they need, and that is also the assessment of the military professionals.
My departmental responsibilities are to ensure: that our country is properly defended, now and in the future, through the delivery of the military tasks for which the MOD is mandated; that our service personnel have the right equipment and training to allow them to succeed in those military tasks; and that we honour our armed forces covenant. In order to discharge those duties, I have a clear responsibility to ensure that the Department has a properly balanced budget, and a force generation strategy and defence equipment programme that are affordable and sustainable in the medium to long term.
I am sorry but the hon. Gentleman is displaying a deep misunderstanding of what has happened today. We have announced today the signing of the contract for the long period overhaul of the last of the four Vanguard-class submarines, HMS Vengeance. HMS Vigilant will sail tomorrow, having completed her refit. This will extend the life of the Vanguard-class submarines into the 2030s, which will allow the nuclear successor submarine to be introduced in the late 2020s while maintaining the UK’s continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent.
T5. Given that 30% of all Vietnam veterans suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and given the 13 to 14 year average before our veterans display PTSD symptoms, what is the Minister doing to ensure that servicemen and women receive support not just soon after their discharge, but in the decades that follow? (101625)
I note that my hon. Friend recently took part in a Westminster Hall debate on exactly this issue, which was replied to by the Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), with whom I recently visited Combat Stress because we have worked hand in hand on these issues. I mentioned the “Fighting Fit” report earlier. We are looking very closely at the long-term provision of support. This is a difficult and complex field, and we work very closely with the King’s Centre, under Professor Simon Wessely.
I wish to return to the question posed by the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) about one of the most controversial decisions of the Government—the decision to sell the Harriers, leaving the UK with carriers but no aeroplanes to fly from them. I have in my hand an internal MOD document that reveals that the Government sold the Harriers for much less than they were worth—in fact for a sixth of the cost of a recent upgrade. The document shows that there is a fear about viable capability being thrown away and points out that at the point of sale the aircraft should be moved in secret to avoid media attention. May I ask the Secretary of State why, when money is so tight, the Government sold the Harriers so cheaply to the US?
I think the right hon. Gentleman perhaps spends too much time reading the Sunday newspapers. I too read an article yesterday that said we had spent £500 million refurbishing the Harriers shortly before selling them to the United States. In fact, the programme in question was instigated by the previous Government in 2002 and sustained the Harrier through to the end of its service with UK forces. Far from sneaking the Harriers to the US in secret, when the deal was signed the MOD issued a press release announcing the sale price, $180 million, which was nearly twice the figure that I was told when I arrived at the MOD had been pencilled in as the receipt. It was a success, although the right hon. Gentleman would hate to admit it.
T6. The Minister will be familiar with Chetwynd barracks in Chilwell in Broxtowe having visited it just the other week, when he brought a cheque for £50,000 for Alderman Pounder school, for which we are very grateful. Will he ensure that some of the extra money announced in last week’s Budget is provided to soldiers’ families at Chetwynd, who want, like many soldiers, to live on base as a community? (101627)
I was delighted to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency and Alderman Pounder school and I am delighted at the work going on there, which is helped by the MOD support fund for state schools with service children. I should also warn her about Greeks bearing gifts, but I have no Greek blood.
T2. The recent London-Somali conference reflected the commitment of successive Governments to that region, but the communiqué spoke of co-ordinated ground action, and air strikes were also mooted. Will the Secretary of State rule out British military action in Somalia, including ground troops and air strikes? (101622)
I do not think it would be sensible for me to rule out anything in the long term, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we have no plans to deploy any troops at the moment. As he will know, the African Union provides the troops for this operation; our involvement is limited to a very small number of staff advisers, largely advising the Kenyan forces.
T7. Concerns about the provision of mental health care for veterans have been widely reported in the media. Does the Minister have any plans to implement the community veterans mental health project following the success of a pilot scheme in Wales? (101629)
We are looking at that as we are looking at all future provision, but this is quite a developing field. As I said earlier, we look very much to advice from the King’s Centre and Professor Simon Wessely. He has already provided some excellent advice. PTSD and issues of mental health are extraordinarily complicated. I think we need to tread very warily when we go forward and to take them extremely seriously.
T3. In the previous MOD questions my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State asked what steps the Minister had taken to ensure the service premium continues to be paid for the children of service personnel who die on duty. The Minister has had a full month, so will he tell me what steps he has actually taken to ensure that service children are properly supported and continue to receive the help they deserve? Has he lived up to his previous statement that he does not wash his hands of the situation? (101623)
The reason I said that I do not wash my hands of the situation is that we are concerned about service children whose parents have been killed. However, as I said at the time, this is a Department for Education initiative. I should have hoped that the Opposition praise the pupil premium initiative. We are very keen that all children of service personnel should do well, but the premium is paid because of the mobility of children. We therefore have to look very carefully at how children will be affected when their mobility ceases.
T8. Does the Secretary of State agree that the tempo of our military withdrawal from Afghanistan should be dictated by real measures of military success on the ground, so that the British lives lost in Afghanistan will not have been in vain? (101630)
I agree absolutely that we must secure our legacy in Afghanistan for the sake of all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. The tempo of our withdrawal will depend on the situation on the ground and on decisions that our allies take: we have to go in lockstep with our major allies.
T4. Will the Secretary of State update the House on the planned cuts of almost 50% to the Ministry of Defence police budget and explain further how such a massive reduction can have anything other than a detrimental impact on national security? (101624)
The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan), tells me there is to be a written ministerial statement on that subject tomorrow, but let me say this to the hon. Gentleman: if he is concerned about cuts, perhaps he should be aware of a passage in a letter written by his right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition to his party’s defence spokesman, in which the right hon. Gentleman says that there is no easy future for defence expenditure, and clearly a Labour Government can expect to have to make further savings after the next election. The hon. Gentleman might want to talk to the Leader of the Opposition about the matter.
Following on from that question and the Secretary of State’s reply, may I draw his attention to my Question 17 on the Order Paper and ask when the Ministry of Defence is going to come clean about the future of the Ministry of Defence police? The Labour Government cut the number of MOD police posts in my constituency from 33 to three, and now Question 17 indicates further cuts.
As my right hon. Friend just mentioned, there is to be a written ministerial statement tomorrow, but I can say that we aim to reprioritise the work of the Ministry of Defence police criminal investigation department on the crimes that most significantly affect the defence interest. There will be reductions, but we will consult staff associations and the trade unions, as well as other key stakeholders such as the Home Office.
I represent a constituency with a proud heritage of support for the Royal Navy. Will the Secretary of State assure my constituents that any decision on the future of the carriers will be based on considerations of long-term costs and long-term interoperability, not of short-term savings?
Earlier, we heard about morale in the armed forces. I regret to report that, apparently, morale is low in the Royal Marines Reserve detachment in my constituency, because of uncertainty about its future. I wrote to the Secretary of State for Defence in January, raised the matter in Prime Minister’s questions in February and today I am raising it for the third month in succession. What does the future hold for the RMR detachment in Dundee?
I was with service families 10 days ago. They told me that, at the moment, what they are most worried about is redundancy. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we ought to get redundancy done as soon as possible, so that morale can improve?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: uncertainty saps morale. That is why the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force have completed the announcements of redundancies required. Because of the rebasing, the drawdown from Afghanistan and the return from Germany, it has not been possible for the Army to complete that process, but we will make announcements as soon as we can to provide as much certainty as possible.
The treatment of veterans, including those in ongoing conflicts, such as Afghanistan, is a key part of the military covenant. To that end the Westminster Government repeatedly send Ministers and Members of Parliament to understand circumstances there to inform decision-making on the treatment of veterans in medical policy and support provision. Given that veterans issues are largely devolved in Scotland, why has the MOD refused to arrange a visit to service personnel in Afghanistan for Scottish veterans affairs Minister, Keith Brown?
I can reassure my hon. Friend that that is precisely our intention. At the Chicago NATO summit in May we expect to put together a package of ongoing financial support to the Afghan national security forces to allow them to take control of their own security in Afghanistan and maintain it as properly governed space.
Sixty-nine years ago tomorrow, HMS Dasher sank off the coast of North Ayrshire and 379 crewmen lost their lives. The survivors and families have been asking for access to the Ministry of Defence files to find out what happened. Will the Minister meet me, any of the seven living survivors who wish to come, and the families to discuss the matter?
I am delighted to be able to give my right hon. Friend an assurance that the Ministry of Defence is working closely with the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development because we think building stability overseas and defence diplomacy are extremely important parts of the overall picture in conflict prevention. I can assure my right hon. Friend and the House that we are working hard to that end.
Headley Court does a fantastic job. I know that Members from across the House have visited it. However, in the long term we see a new centre, the defence and national rehabilitation centre, being established in the midlands—at a place called Stanford Hall. This is being supported very much and led by the Duke of Westminster and other donors. We pay tribute to them. I will discuss the details later—I shall be sat on if I give any more. It is an excellent initiative and I pay tribute to those involved.
With permission Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on party funding.
As set out in the coalition Government’s programme, party funding in Britain needs to be reformed. The last major attempt at reform came in the cross-party talks between 2006 and 2008, chaired by Sir Hayden Phillips, which I led for the Conservative party. The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) led for the Labour party and the present Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons, my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), led for the Liberal Democrats. The origin of those talks was a genuine desire on the part of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—[Hon. Members: “ Where is he?”]—and Tony Blair and the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) to resolve these issues, which were disfiguring the face of British politics. The expectation was that there could be some increase in state funding if there were a cap on donations, but crucially a cap applying to all donations, whatever their source. Those talks came agonisingly close to securing agreement for long-term reform, but in the event agreement proved impossible. That was a serious missed opportunity. Since then, the need for change has become more, not less, pressing. Accordingly, at the last election, all three main parties promised in their manifestos to make progress.
This Government have an explicit commitment in the coalition agreement to
“pursue a detailed agreement on limiting donations and reforming party funding in order to remove big money from politics”.
It was helpful when, in the early months of the coalition Government—[Interruption.]
Order. The Minister for the Cabinet Office is ploughing on manfully—perhaps I should say “personfully”—through his statement, but he should not have to put up with this level of noise. It is not acceptable. We do not want this sort of noise from either side of the House. Let us hear the statement and the response. The House can rely on me to ensure that there will then be a full opportunity for Members in all parts of the House to question the Minister, but let us listen to his statement with courtesy.
I am not particularly surprised that the Labour party wants to drown out this statement, because its role in this saga is a shameful one.
It was helpful when, in the early months of the coalition Government, the Committee on Standards in Public Life launched a review. That Committee reported last November. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, with support from the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, who is responsible for political and constitutional reform, leads for the Government and, in that capacity, responded to the report. He welcomed the recommendations and confirmed that the report contained a useful guide to the principles and areas that are essential for party funding agreement.
However, the Government could not see a case, at that time of austerity, for additional state funding for political parties. The Committee’s view that an increase in state funding was required meant that its recommendations could not be adopted in full. Instead, as he told the House last month, the Deputy Prime Minister wrote to party leaders asking for nominations to take part in cross-party discussions. Nominations have been received from all three parties. With Lord Feldman, I will lead for the Conservative party. The talks will begin shortly. Events over the last weekend have demonstrated the importance of making progress.
What Peter Cruddas said was completely unacceptable and wrong, and much of what he said was simply not true, as he himself has since stated. As the House will know, all donations to any party headquarters above £7,500 have to be declared to the Electoral Commission and comply with detailed electoral law. These requirements are rightly extremely detailed and demanding, and should be meticulously complied with by all parties. This Government have already gone much further than any previous Government in revealing details of Ministers’ meetings with outside organisations and individuals. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has set out this morning that the Conservative party will now go much further. I hope that all other parties—[Interruption.] As the Leader of the Opposition has taken the trouble to come to the House today, I hope that he will set out what his party will do.
What we are now doing builds on the major improvements to transparency in public life that this Government have introduced. We are the first Government to introduce such transparency and the first Government to tackle the problem of lobbying, with our proposals for a statutory register of lobbyists currently out to consultation. We have published more data than any other Government in history about the activities of Ministers and Government Departments.
Let me return to the forthcoming party funding talks. There is a way of solving this problem. Across the House, we broadly know the issues we need to address. We need to look at donations and how to limit them, and we need to look at affiliate bodies. The Prime Minister has once again said that he is ready to cap donations, but only if it is agreed that the cap applies to all donations, whatever their source. We could also look at how to boost small donations and broaden the support base for parties, at the way in which existing state funding works, and at how we might further increase transparency around fundraising activities. The challenge for us all across the House is to make this process work, to reach agreement across all sides, and to deal with the problem of party funding once and for all. I look forward to the enthusiastic support of all parties for this course.
Let me say first to the Minister for the Cabinet Office that it should not be him at the Dispatch Box today; it should have been the Prime Minister who came to the House, because the revelations this weekend concern his office, his policy unit and his judgment. It shows utter contempt for this House that the Prime Minister could make a statement to the media just three hours ago but refuse to come here to face Members of Parliament. I think we all know why: he has something to hide.
I will come to the wider party funding issues that the Minister raises, but let us be clear that the reason why he has come to the House today is not the long-standing debate about party funding, but this weekend’s revelations. Let me remind the House that this is about the Prime Minister’s chief fundraiser seeking cash for access. What did he say? He said:
“The first thing we do… is get you at the Cameron and Osborne dinners, and in fact some of our bigger donors have been for dinner in No. 10 Downing Street”.
It is about seeking cash for influence. [Interruption.] I think that hon. Members should listen and hear about the seeking of cash for influence. He said:
“We get a chance to ask the Prime Minister questions… What do you think we are going to do about the top rate of tax… Everything is confidential”.
And it is about seeking cash for policy. I quote:
“If you’re… unhappy about something… we’ll listen to you and we’ll put it into the policy committee at No. 10.”
These represent grave allegations about the way access is gained and policy is made. They are about a breaking down of the lines between support for a political party and Government policy.
First, will the Minster accept that it is completely inadequate, given the scale of these allegations, for an investigation into what happened to be conducted by the Conservative party? A Conservative peer, appointed by the Prime Minister, an inquiry into the Conservative party, by the Conservative party and for the Conservative party—it is a whitewash and everyone knows it. We need a proper, independent inquiry appropriate to the gravity of what is at stake. Will the Minister now agree to an inquiry conducted by the independent adviser on ministerial interests, Sir Alex Allan?
On cash for access, the inquiry should specifically cover all the donors the Prime Minister has met in Government buildings—Downing street and Chequers—since May 2010; whether any of those meetings were in response to promises of cash for access; and whether other senior Ministers, including the Chancellor, have held such meetings.
On cash for influence, the inquiry should cover whether Conservative party donors were offered the chance, as Peter Cruddas said, to put forward policy ideas in exchange for donations; whether any of these ideas were forwarded to the No. 10 policy unit; which of them found their way into the Chancellor’s Budget; and whether Government Departments have been asked by Downing street to facilitate ministerial and official meetings with donors. Above all, the inquiry needs to investigate the breaking down of the boundary between the Prime Minister as leader of his party and the Prime Minister as Head of the Government.
Yesterday we were told that the only people who had been to dinner in Downing street were a few “long-standing friends” invited to the private flat. Today Downing street has admitted that some of them were not invited because they were long-standing friends at all and that it was not in the private flat; it was a thank-you dinner for donors to the Conservative party held inside Downing street. In total, £18 million came from 12 donors. It was not the premier league, but the champions league of Tory donors—I bet they did all right in the Budget. And even that is not a complete list, because the Prime Minister has refused to name donors he met on Government property who donated less than £50,000. What is the excuse? It is that only donations of £50,000 are significant donations. Only this Prime Minister would think a donation of £49,000, twice the average salary, was not significant.
Next, does the Minister for the Cabinet Office agree that the rules on party political funding are clear? It is illegal to solicit donations—[Interruption.] I would have thought he would like to hear about this; it is about illegality and allegations of illegality. It is illegal to solicit donations through overseas companies and illegal to disguise those donations, yet there are allegations that this was exactly what Mr Cruddas was suggesting. Will the Minister now undertake to recommend to the Prime Minister that he refer the Conservative party to the Electoral Commission to investigate this practice by Mr Cruddas and whether it has been practised by other Conservative party donors?
Thirdly, on the issue of party funding, I am somewhat surprised by the Minister suddenly now saying that he wants to restart talks. Let me provide the House with some background. The Deputy Prime Minister wrote to me and the Prime Minister on 8 February, seeking cross-party talks with heads of terms to be decided by Easter—very soon. I replied with my suggested nominees 12 days later. Such was the Government’s enthusiasm for reform, that in the five weeks since then I have heard precisely nothing about those talks, and neither has either of my nominees.
What are we to make of the Government’s new-found enthusiasm for reform? What a coincidence—the day after the Tory treasurer seeks cash for access. And who have they nominated for those talks? The Minister, and another great reformer, the Conservative party chairman, Lord Feldman. He is the man who fatally undermined the Kelly inquiry by writing at the eleventh hour to say that a £10,000 cap on donations was unacceptable because it would
“hugely inhibit the ability of political parties to engage with the electorate.”
Perhaps he should have said, “hugely inhibit the power of rich individuals to influence policy in Downing street.” We are happy to have proper talks about funding, but it is ridiculous for the Government to seek to use them as a smokescreen for the revelations this weekend.
The problem is that these people, as we saw with last week’s Budget, think they can get away with anything—and they have been found out. The weekend’s revelations show this Government cannot deliver the change we need. They promised transparency, they promised to clean up politics; now they will not even agree to a proper inquiry, and the Prime Minister is too ashamed to come to this House to explain his conduct.
This scandal speaks to the conduct and character of the Prime Minister and the Government. Anything short of an independent inquiry will leave a permanent stain on this Government and this Prime Minister.
For 13 years the Leader of the Opposition was at the heart of the Labour Government. For 13 years they had the chance to make government transparent. For 13 years they had the chance to reform party funding. For 13 years they did nothing—nothing. And, worse than nothing, they blocked reform, because who was it who stopped the Hayden Phillips reforms going through? It was Labour. The House need not rely on me for that; it can rely on Peter Watt, the then general secretary of the Labour party, who said:
“My primary emotion during the process was intense frustration, because my own party”—
“was the biggest block to reform.”
So the right hon. Gentleman should not come here, grandstand and claim the moral high ground. His party has a shameful role in the past. He should come here to say sorry for blocking the reform that was there to be had.
Labour in office gave us the cash for honours affair and a police investigation into proxy donations, and I remind the right hon. Gentleman, lest he forget in his new-found enthusiasm for independent investigation, that the investigation into the David Abrahams affair was conducted not by some independent person but by Lord Whitty, a former general secretary of the Labour party. And now that Labour is in opposition, its donors do not just buy policy—they elect the leader. That is why, after the right hon. Gentleman was elected Leader of the Opposition, the first thing he did was to go up to the leaders of Unite, put an arm round their shoulders, and say a warm, heartfelt “Thank you.”
We have heard about cash for policy, and cash can buy policy, but not on this side of the House. It was shocking recently to discover that votes can be decided on the basis of money paid and a cheque cashed. In fact, Labour, back in 2004 in the Warwick agreement, drew up its election programme on the back of an agreement to have union donations that would fund its campaign, so the right hon. Gentleman should not come here and lecture us about cash for policy, because Labour Members are the past masters at it—and look where it has got them. The shadow Health Secretary—he is over there—tabled amendments pushed by his union backers. [Interruption.] The shadow Justice Secretary could not confirm Labour’s own—[Interruption.]
Order. [Interruption.] Order. [Interruption.] The Minister should resume his seat, which he has done. First of all, there is far too much noise, a lot of it, but not all, from a sedentary position; and, secondly, I simply say—[Interruption.] Order. I simply say to the Minister that the terms are inevitably wide, but I know that he will want to respond to the questions asked in conformity with the convention governing ministerial statements and that he will want to make a statement of the policy of the Government.
It is the policy of the Government that there should be cross-party discussions about reform to party funding. It is very important, as we go into this, that we understand the basis on which those important discussions are going to take place, and each party’s background in that respect.
I was just commenting on the shadow Justice Secretary’s inability to confirm Labour’s policy because he was “checking with the GMB”, which, by the way, gave the Labour party over £1.5 million while the Leader of the Opposition was its leader—and we know that when he pulled a sickie saying that he was too ill to attend an NHS rally, he was in fact meeting his very own six-figure donor at Hull City.
We have heard a lot about Labour and Mr Andrew Rosenfeld. I know Mr Rosenfeld; I met him when I was party chairman, and I can tell you, Mr Speaker, that we did not take his money. The Prime Minister has said what the Conservative party is doing to put its house in order. We have already been far more open than Labour ever was when it was in office. I hope that in the course of these discussions the Leader of the Opposition will tell us what he is doing to open up the Labour party. Will he commit to publishing details of every single meal that he has had with donors? Is he going to own up about the dinner with Roland Rudd, whose attendees he promised to reveal months ago but still has not? Will he reveal details of all the meetings with Labour donors in No. 10 that Tony Blair and the previous Prime Minister had when in office? Will he commit to publishing any shadow Cabinet contact with Labour’s union donors? It is no good expecting a list from the Leader of the Opposition. We know that there would be one name on it again and again: Len McCluskey, Len McCluskey and Len McCluskey.
Order. I am keen to hear questions from Members of the House. I hope that there will be appropriately brief replies from the Minister, because the purpose of the exercise is for Members to question the Minister, rather than for accusations to be flung across the House from both sides.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that what all political parties need is for more people to join them? If we had a lot more members of political parties, Labour would not be so dependent on the trade unions and other parties would not be dependent on significant donors. We all have an incentive to encourage more people to join all of us, rather than to engage in this yah-boo politics, which simply puts people off joining political parties.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. It was a pity that the opportunity was not taken in the Hayden Phillips discussions to go ahead with the reforms that were so close to agreement, because one of the proposals was to have more state funding to match smaller donations. That would have achieved exactly what my hon. Friend is talking about, which is increasing the spread of those who support political parties. We sometimes lose sight of the fact that it is good for people to support political parties. Democracy depends on it.
Will the right hon. Gentleman first confirm that the only legislation on party funding of any significance was put through by the previous Government in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 and the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009?
Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman explain to the House what is wrong with having Sir Alex Allan, a distinguished civil servant who has served Labour and Conservative Governments, including the Thatcher Administration, so well, hold an inquiry into this scandal, which differs wholly in its character from those that have gone before, because it goes to the role of the Prime Minister?
Thirdly, the right hon. Gentleman, who was at the talks in 2007, as was I and as was the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), is right to recall that we came “agonisingly close” to an agreement—so close that we almost initialled the agreement in June 2007. However, to use not my words but those of the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons, the Conservative party walked away, and he described the right hon. Gentleman’s approach as “bogus”. What guarantee can we have that if new talks take place, the right hon. Gentleman will not operate in the same way?
The investigation is not fundamentally about ministerial propriety, but about party funding. No money changed hands, nor was it ever likely to, because what was suggested by Mr Cruddas was fantasy and could never have come to fruition. If it was good enough for a former general secretary of the Labour party to investigate the Labour party’s scandal over donations by proxy, it is good enough for a distinguished lawyer to conduct the investigation into this matter.
On the right hon. Gentleman’s comments about the breakdown of the talks with Sir Hayden Phillips, I refer him to what was said by Peter Watt, the then general secretary of the Labour party, who represented the Labour party with the right hon. Gentleman. He said in absolutely clear terms how frustrated he was that it was the Labour party that was blocking reform. Those are not my words, but those of Peter Watt.
Will the Minister confirm that the Prime Minister has voluntarily disclosed far more information about his meetings and meetings held by his Ministers than any previous Prime Minister? Will he tell the House what the Government’s policy is in this matter and explain how it compares with the policy of previous Governments?
I simply confirm what my hon. Friend says, and what I said earlier. This Government have by a quantum leap disclosed more information about Ministers’ activities and their meetings with outside organisations and individuals than the last Government ever contemplated. They operated behind closed doors; we have let the sunlight in.
I agree that it is essential that there should be a cap on donations, and we agreed in the previous discussions that an appropriate level—[Interruption.] Actually, all three parties agreed that the appropriate level was £50,000. There is room for discussion about that, which is fine. Sir Christopher Kelly also said, absolutely unequivocally, that the other side of the coin of a cap on donations was an increase in state funding, and I doubt whether anyone in the House wishes to go out to hard-pressed taxpayers at the moment and claim that the first call on their funds should be additional funding for political parties.
Is it not a fact that before the election the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), now a member of the Government, complained to the Standards and Privileges Committee that the Leader of the Opposition—the leader of the Conservative party—was using his office in the House of Commons to meet the members of The Leader's Group, and that the Committee upheld the complaint? It stated:
“Mr Cameron was in our view ill-advised to link directly…the issues of access to his office and party fund-raising.”
If that was an offence for the Leader of the Opposition, how much worse an offence is it for the Prime Minister to use No. 10 Downing street? He is the leader of a Government who are incompetent, arrogant, extreme right-wing and corrupt.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that progress on party funding requires co-operation and transparency from all the main political parties? Will he join me in asking the leaders of all parties to publish the list of donors they have met recently?
The revelations that Peter Cruddas and the Prime Minister have spoken about Scotland and its referendum in rude and pejorative terms mean that Westminster can have no part in Scotland’s referendum, but does the Minister agree that if any law has been broken it is a matter not for politicians but for the police?
The Deputy Prime Minister, for whom I know my hon. Friend has particular affection, has said on behalf of the Government that we think it is inappropriate at this stage, in this age of austerity, to contemplate another call on taxpayers’ funds being made to fill the pockets of political parties.
In the past 12 months, there has been the most intensive lobby by the aviation industry of the Government to reverse their policy on the third runway at Heathrow. This weekend, senior members of the Conservative party briefed the media that they were reconsidering their position, and now we have the cash for access scandal. To dispel any doubt that that is anything other than a coincidence, will the Minister ensure that details of all meetings between aviation industry representatives, the Prime Minister, Ministers, civil servants, policy advisers and party officials are published on the register?
When will we learn from the crisis that engulfed the House three years ago that the response to such situations is not simply to point fingers at one another, but to address with renewed urgency the need to deal with the source, which in this case is the continuing escalation in the political party funding arms race? Will the Minister therefore apply a renewed sense of urgency to tackling that very point?
I can only say yes, that is exactly what we are doing. It is important that we look at all the issues involved in party funding. As I have said—the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) confirmed this—we came very close to reaching agreement. I am sorry only that the Labour party last time blocked the reforms.
In the context of these revelations, the public will be concerned not only about policy change but about policy absence. Will the Minister confirm whether any donors related to the legal loan sharking industry have made representations on the Government’s absence of a cap on the cost of credit?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the great sadnesses of the last 24 hours is that our politics is in the news again for all the wrong reasons? Does he further agree that any settlement on the funding of political parties must include the trade union movement? Lastly, does he agree that as well as a cap on donations, we should be looking at a national cap on spending that will bring to an end silly spending for pointless reasons?
Why has the Prime Minister not turned up to answer questions? Is it because there is not enough money on offer? Is it not a fact that the Prime Minister has been surrounded by sleaze ever since he walked through the doors of No. 10, a public property that he has been using for his own and his party’s ends? The truth is that it is time this matter was cleaned up in a proper manner. It is time it went to the police.
I hope the Minister will stick to his resolve not to pick the public’s pocket on raising any levy for political parties, just as constituents of mine have expressed annoyance that the unions pick their pockets and all the funding is used to support the Labour party, despite their political allegiance.
Should The Sunday Times not be congratulated on exposing this story? Is it not clear that had The Sunday Times story not shown the squalid way in which the Tory party raises money, the Minister would not be making this statement today?
How many private dinners with the Prime Minister or the Chancellor that involved party fundraising have there been since the election? What was the total sum raised? Will the Minister require in future that all private dinners or meetings with Ministers involving party fundraising will be officially recorded on the official register?
The Prime Minister announced this morning that, as leader of the Conservative party, he is committing the Conservative party to going to an unparalleled degree of openness about engagement with the major donors. We look forward to hearing the same commitment from the leader of the right hon. Gentleman’s party.
The Minister mentioned the cross-party talks chaired by Sir Hayden Phillips five years ago. Will he confirm that early in those talks the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, accepted the need for the cap to apply to trade unions as well, but that ultimately the rest of the Labour party was a roadblock to such reform?
My hon. Friend is completely right. There was a concern that if the Conservative party was to get over its deep-seated opposition to increasing the amount of state funding for political parties, the other side of the coin had to be that the Labour party would give up its addiction to trade union funding. Sadly, the latter part did not come through.
Any claim that the Minister made earlier to openness and transparency is ruined by the Prime Minister's not coming to the House today. That is a key point. He made a partial statement outside the House about some of his dinners with significant donors, but that will not do. We need an independent inquiry and the fullest list imaginable not just of dinners but of breakfasts, lunches, teas, drinks and any other occasions involving Ministers as well as the Prime Minister.
The hon. Lady fulminates about the absence of the Prime Minister being the key point, but she knows that that is not the case. She knows that that is not what this is about. She should address the substantial issues, and I look forward to hearing her say that she will support genuine reform of party funding, which will have to address the issue of donations from the trade union movement to the Labour party. Will she do that?
If the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), ever turns up again to the House of Commons, will my right hon. Friend discuss this matter with him to ensure that members of the previous Government publish details of all their dinners, breakfasts and meetings with donors over the past 15 years?
It appears that the cost of a meal with the Prime Minister is about a quarter of a million quid. We can only imagine what the cost would be for the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who is just leaving the Chamber, in “Dodgy Dave’s Downing Street Diner”. Does the Minister understand that when stories such as this emerge, it only confirms what we in Liverpool already know—the Tories are not interested in ordinary people; they are interested only in buying favour and making their rich friends even richer?
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that no such policy committee as described by Mr Cruddas exists at No. 10 and that there is no evidence that any policy has been changed by private lobbying, unlike the shameful record of the last Government?
It is completely impossible for any policy to be changed in that way. Policy in the coalition Government has to be agreed not just by Conservative Ministers but collectively with Conservative and Lib Dem Ministers, so the idea that there is a direct route from Conservative party donors to policy change is absolutely absurd.
In the Budget, the Chancellor announced a number of tax changes to the regimes for gambling and financial services. Can the Minister tell the House whether Peter Cruddas, in his role of treasurer—he is also the market leader in internet spread betting—had any influence at all?
I very much doubt it, but I suspect—[Interruption.] As I have said repeatedly, anyone who has been in government knows that in the run-up to a Budget, we get representations from all sorts of people, in favour of everything and against everything. I have no doubt that the Chancellor received lots of representations from all directions on this and other subjects.
Given the acrimonious, childish and partisan shouting, jeering and accusations that have accompanied this statement—[Interruption.]—such as that! Does the Minister agree that we should set a short time scale—perhaps by the next Queen’s Speech—for when politicians can be expected to sort this out for themselves, and that if that has not worked by then, we should simply accept the recommendations of the independent Kelly inquiry, which has already met?
The problem with what my hon. Friend suggests is that, as the Deputy Prime Minister has set out, it is simply not realistic at the moment to propose that we should significantly increase the amount of state funding for political parties. Having a set of reforms of the nature set out by Sir Christopher Kelly’s committee is absolutely dependent on increasing state funding, which I do not think anyone in this House will feel comfortable proposing to their constituents.
If this is not about cash for access, could I bring a pensioner and a working parent from Exeter to see the Prime Minister, at Downing street or Chequers, so that he can explain why he cut taxes for millionaires but clobbered them with a granny tax and a cut in family tax credits?
What was in The Sunday Times was woeful. All Members, from all parts of the House, agree on that, and it has a history, in all parts of the House. Does my right hon. Friend agree that all political leaders should give explicit instructions to those charged with raising funds that this should never happen again?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need much greater transparency in the way political donations are solicited, including the £1 million in cash that Labour solicited from Andrew Rosenfeld, a former tax exile and a man whose firm left Allders pensioners high and dry?
Shortly before the general election, the Bribery Act 2010 was passed with all-party support. Under certain circumstances the Act requires the director of the Serious Fraud Office to seek permission from the Attorney-General before investigating or prosecuting. Can the Minister give the House an absolute assurance that neither the Attorney-General nor the Solicitor-General will exercise a veto over an investigation or prosecution, if that is what the director of the SFO believes is in order?
I declare an interest as a former registered treasurer of the Conservative party. Does not this affair, like the similar affairs under the previous Government, damage this whole House and all political parties? Is not the answer complete transparency about whom those on the Front Bench and the shadow Front Bench meet, and a cap on all political donations—individual, company and trade union?
I completely agree. We approached the previous discussions absolutely in that spirit, and we will approach the new discussions in that same spirit, too. [Interruption.] I make the point again to the Labour Chief Whip, who is muttering from a sedentary position, that it was Labour’s own general secretary who said that it was Labour that blocked the last reforms.
It affects the mysterious matter of affiliation fees. Theoretically, union members have the right to opt out of paying the political levy, except that people have to be very persistent to find out A—that there is a right to do it; B—how to do it; and C—that they will not save any money even if they do so.
A compliance officer has, by law, to be appointed by every single political party under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The Conservative party compliance officer and deputy treasurer, Mike Chattey, is given specific responsibility to ensure that donations are kept legal. In view of what The Sunday Times has reported Mr Chattey to have said, does the Minister agree that that is without question a breach of section 61 of the Act, which states that “any concealment or disguise” of a foreign donation is illegal? Why is Chattey still in his job?
As has been made abundantly clear, the treasurer’s department at CCHQ—Conservative campaign headquarters—did not know that this meeting was taking place. No donation was advanced, and nor could it possibly have been, for exactly the reason that the hon. Gentleman sets out—that it would have been illegal.
All political parties have donor clubs. It is one way to raise money. I am delighted that the Labour party is extending its reach and trying to raise money from others than simply the trade unions, which we should remember have provided 87% of the entirety of Labour’s finances since the Leader of the Opposition has been in his post.
I was elected 18 years ago, almost to the month, and the Conservative party then was convulsed by sleaze. As a Minister in the last Government, I urged major reform, but I failed to convince colleagues. Again, we are where we are today. Every parliament in the Commonwealth and Europe has had to accept that democracy pays for democracy. Believe me—even if I am alone in wanting this—if we do not reform this completely and utterly, this issue will return to haunt this Government and possibly my own party.